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My New Year’s Resolution:
Balancing Hope and Despair
by John Ohliger
January 14, 1991
What is your New Year's resolution for 1991? Mine is to better balance hope and despair. Most of the time I feel plugged into a strong alternating current of faith and rage. The great, and generally soft-spoken, philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said he could "barely suppress a savage rage," when he looked at the state of education. I agree.
Seeds of Hope
But I want to do all I can to help the seeds of hope take root that are all around us. At the same time it's important to honor legitimate rage at this country's power elite for perpetuating our current educational folly. These are the same people who are ready to fill thousands of body bags and waste billions of dollars in the Persian Gulf to maintain their elite power.
Two books published at the end of 1990 in San Francisco are helping me find a balance between hopeful faith and despairing rage. They might help you too.
Enhancing the Volunteer Experience
The first is Enhancing the Volunteer Experience: New Insights on Strengthening Volunteer Participation, Learning, and Commitment (Jossey-Bass). I've known the author, Paul Ilsley, for over ten years. His background in volunteer work goes back much farther than that. He's a strong, but not uncritical, supporter of voluntarism's value. Unlike almost all other authors, Paul sees its positive and negative aspects.
Dracula at the Bloodbank
Right after he co-authored his first book on it in 1981, Ilsley wrote me: "Did I tell you that a copy was sent to President Reagan? It should not be surprising that he is encouraging the corporate sector to spearhead the American voluntary effort. This is like asking Dracula to take charge of the bloodbank."
Paul is now a professor of adult education at Northern Illinois University. In his latest book he does a fine job of balancing the undoubted value of people offering their helpful services with astute observations on the many problems involved, not only for the volunteer, but for agencies and all of society as well. The chief problems he sees are the growing tendencies to professionalize the work and to treat volunteers as if they are employees.
Ilsley's book pulls no punches but also offers helpful suggestions for dealing with these and other dilemmas. In-stead of spinning out arcane theories, he grounds his views in over 300 interviews with volunteers and with those who seek their aid. Adding immensely to the book's interest, Paul quotes generously from the interviewees' often robust comments.
There are, in my view, only two problems with Enhancing the Volunteer Experience: the price ($23.95) is too high for a 190 page book; and Paul Ilsley spends the last few pages lauding two dubious cliches -- the beliefs in "rapid change" and in "visioning" as the first step toward solving society's problems.
For the past 40 years I've been mainly a volunteer but occasionally a "manager" of volunteers. This is the first book I've read that speaks to both experiences in language I can understand and benefit from. You too, I believe, will find it full of insights, even revelations, that can make your work more worthwhile, definitely including helping volunteers to engage in adult education activities.
The Partnership Way
The second book that offers the antidote of hope to despair is The Partnership Way: New Tools for Living and Learning, Healing Our Families, Our Communities, and Our World: A Practical Companion for The Chalice and The Blade (HarperSanFranciso, trade paperback, $14.95, 242 pages) by Riane Eisler and David Loye.
When Eisler's The Chalice and The Blade came out in 1987 it quickly went through 17 printings and was endorsed by Ashley Montagu, Fritjof Capra, Isabel Allende, Daniel Ellsberg, Hazel Henderson, Marija Gimbatas, Margarita Papandreou and others who spontaneously formed many Centers for Partnership Education. This companion offers what many of us have been clamoring for: a study guide for individuals and groups to find ways of turning Eisler's work to practical use. She believes that society, based since pre-historic days on male domination, can change into one in which nobody -- male or female -- is dominant. This is the partnership society some archeologists think existed before the current "dominator" one. In The Partnership Way, Eisler, and her longtime partner David Loye, provide hundreds of exercises and suggestions to help us all integrate our personal and social concerns in hopeful ways.
I've added these works and many others that support them to the background for an enlarged, revised version of my Social Philosophy Luncheon talk offered here earlier after its presentation at the Salt Lake City 1990 National Adult Education Conference (see ACET, Nov. 19, 1990). It's now over 60 pages and is available for $10 paid in advance in U.S. funds to Basic Choices/HOPE, 730 W. Jefferson, Springfield, IL 62702. One person who heard the talk wrote me, "I like the balance of hope that informed your speech." After reading the two books mentioned above and others, I've attempted to strengthen that balance.
John Ohliger is Director of Basic Choices, Inc., A Midwest Center for Clarifying Political and Social Options.
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